A man-made disaster

This is an extended version of an editor’s note that appears in the June 21, 2018, issue.

We are witnessing one of history’s most calamitous examples of unintended consequences. The massive forest fires that have blackened hillsides (and towns) and sullied California skies in the past many summers cannot be seen as natural disasters. As Howard Hardee’s cover story this week shows, these fires are the result of two seriously bad decisions.

One of those decisions was innocent yet wrong-headed—it might be a human instinct to extinguish a fire when it erupts. When Gifford Pinchot declared, in 1905, that “today, we understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of men”—that statement wasn’t rooted in meanness, simply hubris. At worst, Pinchot was giving voice to the fear-of-nature that led the Europeans to conquer the landscape rather than coexist with it.

In contrast, the people who’d made the western North American continent home for millennia lived with fire as they did all things. The extent to which indigenous tribes used fire, along with dozens of other agricultural technologies, to manage the forests and valleys in which they lived is only recently being recognized. UC Davis ecologist M. Kat Anderson has been the clearest exponent of this story, told beautifully in his book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.

From the book jacket: “John Muir was an early proponent of a view we still hold today—that much of California was pristine, untouched wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. But … what Muir was really seeing when he admired the grand vistas of Yosemite and the gold and purple flowers carpeting the Central Valley were the fertile gardens of the Sierra Miwok and Valley Yokuts Indians, modified and made productive by centuries of harvesting, tilling, sowing, pruning, and burning.”

We’ve recognized for some time that the Miwok, Yokuts and virtually all of the tribes inhabiting North America had a gift for seeing nature and its physical expressions—forests, fields, plants, fire—as something to be studied, understood, respected and even worshipped as sacred. The European conquerors, worshipping a god that looked like themselves, had no such understanding—hence Pinchot’s naivete and our smoky skies.

As you probably already know, fire suppression resulted in massive buildups of fuel and helped create a new ecological event: the megafire. The second poison ingredient in this hot soup is clear-cutting: one of humanity’s most malignant inventions.

It is not widely known that deforestation, even before the megafires, is the second biggest industrial cause of global climate change—only fossil fuel combustion is more destructive. Tragically, predictably, there are those in California today whose prescription for dealing with our choked forests is to mow ’em down.

Pinchot could claim ignorance. These folks cannot—theirs is a demonic brand of false-naivete. You will have an opportunity this fall to stop them. We’ll keep you posted.